Over the river and through the woods

Perhaps it’s the decades of population decline, NY’s forever wild constitutional amendment, or something else; but Schenectady benefits from close proximity to rural areas. I have already enjoyed the many fruit farms in the area this summer, and with the fantastic, extended Summer weather we’ve been having, I’ve taken to a couple of the many nature walks in the area.

Close to home is the Lisha Kill Preserve. I had never heard of it until one of my friend’s neighbors alerted him to the area. It’s also hard to spot from the road. The sign is small, and it looks like you’re pulling into a driveway; but the walk is a great respite from the city. The walk was short and very easy. It’s also well marked.

Bee Careful! Sign at Lisha Kill Preserve
Bee Careful! Sign at Lisha Kill Preserve

I can’t wait to go back in a week or two when the many maple trees turn colors. The walk doesn’t have much of a view, but you do get to see Lisha Kill and escape the rush of daily life. I did get to see a snake. It’s in the picture below. Can you find it?

Can you see the snake?
Can you see the snake?

I saw a much better view at Moreau Lake State Park. It was a little early to see much Fall color, but the view was great, regardless.

A view of Moreau Lake
A view of Moreau Lake
Moreau Lake from the top
Moreau Lake from the top

The walk I took was short and steep, but you could take advantage of many miles of trails around the park. I didn’t get a chance to see it, but apparently, the views of the Hudson are good, too.

Unlike other areas of the country where sprawl has replaced nature, by living in Schenectady I have easy access to both urban activities (Broadway plays, good restaurants, street festivals) and rural ones (farms, hikes, kayaking). As the area turns around from its half century slump, I hope urban sprawl can be minimized so I can continue to enjoy both easily; but that will require region-wide coordination. I have yet to see any efforts at long term regional planning. I hope that changes.

Fix yourself a dang tomatillo

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to visit a food market. Sure, it’s great to see the famous touristy things, but to really know a place, you need to know its food. It’s why I insisted I eat Surstromming when I was in Sweden, despite the objections by my traveling companions. After all, it’s one of the foulest smelling foods on the planet, so who can blame them?

I thought moving to Schenectady from CA, I had seen just about every type of produce available in the US. Not only does California benefit from a long growing season, but it also has a large influx of immigrants who are willing to buy exotic fruits and veggies not found in most places.

So, it was surprising when I came across a new fruit right here in the Capital Region. It’s the ground cherry, or Physalis. You don’t find this in the supermarket, but it is available at farmers markets in the area. I picked up mine at the Saturday market on Union Street.

Ground Cherries
Ground Cherries

This particular fruit is slightly sweet, and each one is individually wrapped! In case you were curious, it’s related to the tomatillo, that fruit used to make delicious green salsa.

Is the ground cherry my new favorite fruit? No, but it is something that is fun to snack on and is only available in the late summer. It’s also a fruit that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and because of that, it’s a fruit I’ll always associate with the Capital Region. They won’t be available for much longer this year, so find them while you can!

Just in case you were wondering, the title refers to this scene from Napoleon Dynamite.

Goose Hill NA Community Recognition Awards

Below is the transcript for the Goose Hill NA Community Recognition Awards given at the conclusion of the Steinmetz pavilion dedication ceremony.

Don Birch

Don Birch, owner of the Sawmill Tavern in Schenectady, is one of the city’s finest volunteers. In addition to running his business, Mr. Birch is involved in running several overwhelmingly successful motorcycle charity runs benefiting children and elderly and everyone in between.

In need of a meal? Don’t worry, Don will feed you. He provides shut ins with weekly meals as well as holiday meals. You may live alone, but Don makes sure that you aren’t forgotten or overlooked. The list goes on. He moves people, shovels snow, mows lawns, and provides his community with copious amounts of charity, kindness, and thoughtfulness.

Needless to say, Don is one of the first to take time from his schedule to “step up to the plate” and see to it that whatever needs doing, gets done.

Smiling and shaking hands, Don treats everyone with the utmost respect. You meet him for the first time and you’re made to feel like family.

Out hats are off to you! Thank you for the example you set.

Karen B. Johnson

Karen B. Johnson is a former mayor and former city council member for Schenectady. Currently, she is the Vice Chair of the County Legislature. Karen has given 40 years of service to the constituents of Schenectady.

Karen always makes herself available to anyone with a question. Legislator Johnson, 1 of 3 representatives for this district, has worked hard guiding, outlining, and suggesting various ideas and avenues to the Steinmetz Park Community. We have this lovely pavilion to thank her for, as well as the success of Phase 1 [of the Steinmetz Park renovation].

She has kept her eye on the funds allocated for our park and has made sure that our tax dollars have been properly used. Her 40 years of service extends way beyond her job description, and her dedication is admirable. Our sincere appreciation goes to Karen B. Johnson as well as our heartfelt thanks.

Margaret Novak

For the past 3 years, Margaret has organized and prepared a block party for her section of Randolph Rd. This includes sending out emails to her neighbors, getting the proper permission from the city, and planning for the food to be brought by the residents. The block parties have been quite a success, and that is due to Margaret’s hard work and dedication. Keep up the good work, Margaret. Perhaps, you can share your ideas with the other residential areas. We salute you, Margaret!

Peter Rieck

If you need a good neighbor to be around, Peter Rieck is that man. While he walks his dog around Steinmetz Park every day, he picks up trash and checks to see if there is a broken swing or a park bench in need of repair. He goes home for the appropriate tools and repairs them if possible. Peter alerts the proper authorities if he sees any foul play or negative issues regarding the park. One thing about Peter is that he offers help without being asked. He is willing to lend a hand on various projects which can include taking pictures and videotaping different events…exactly what he is doing today! We can’t say enough thank you’s to Peter Rieck!

Mildred White

Another good neighbor to know is Mildred White. Not only for information and advice, but for cleaning up her street. There are many residents who have for years served their community just by taking regular walks and picking up trash and litter along the way. Mildred does it without any interest in getting noticed or getting a thank you. Millie does what she can in her own way not expecting anything in return. Along her walks she makes friends with some of the animals and feeds them. Also, she has been a faithful supporter of the Goose Hill Neighborhood Association. All of us can be like Millie, helping our neighborhood in our own way. Thank you Mildred White!

Preserving Summer

Wow. Fall comes fast. I love Fall with the colors, cool nights, and hearty foods like soups and roasts. But I’m reluctant to give up on Summer.

This year was fantastic…and average (At least according to the number of cooling degree days). The Summer almost makes up for the bitterly cold winter…almost. Growing up, for me, it was the opposite. The Summer’s were oppressively hot and humid – perfect days to spend at the pool, but terrible for any other outdoor activity. So I love being able to spend my Summer outdoors in Upstate NY. Perhaps it’s the brevity of the season that makes me cherish each moment – recorded by the ripening of the different types of produce throughout the growing season.

For me, August is the best month. Tomatoes are in full swing, watermelons are delicious, and corn is arriving by the bushel. But I especially enjoy peaches. It’s one of those fruits, like cherries and watermelon, that still have seasons. So many fruits are available year round, you need to cherish these transient fruits as much as you can.

Parboiling peaches
Parboiling peaches
Peaches ready for pie
Peaches ready for pie

And so, to prepare for the long winter, I purchased a bushel of peach seconds from Bowman Orchards (you need to call to get on their seconds list) and started preserving the peaches. It’s at this point that I must acknowledge the assistance/leadership of my wife. We canned them, turned them into pies and froze them, made peach cobbler, peach jam, and peach shrub (you know, for those winter doldrums summer cocktails). At this point, I’m pretty much peached out, but I’ll be able to cherish the warmth of Summer again when the high is 7F and the peach pie comes out of the oven. After all, Winter is Coming!

Restaurant diversity, anyone?

This past weekend, I got to enjoy both the Greek and Italian festivals downtown. The music and dancing are always good, but the highlight is the good food. I had an excellent Moussaka at the Greek fest, and the lemon sorbet at the Italian Fest from Perreca’s was excellent.

Perreca's Lemon Ice
Perreca’s Lemon Ice

I was also impressed with the band, Crush, at the Italian Fest. They played a lot of great songs, brought good energy to the stage, and really made the festival come alive. They’re highschoolers, by the way.

Crush performs at Italian Fest
Crush performs at Italian Fest

I enjoyed the festival, despite the fact that when I first moved to Schenectady, one of the first things I noticed, and ultimately wound up complaining about, was the excessive number of Italian restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, I love the classic Italian eateries that have been in Schenectady for generations. Not only are they city landmarks, but they also make good food.

It bothers me when new Italian restaurants open for two reasons. First, I’m tired of eating Italian. I miss the culinary diversity of larger metropolitan areas, and my last minute walks to get Indian take out. We need more Indian restaurants in Schenectady! But second, I worry that the new restaurants, such as Johnny’s, will displace the classic Italian landmarks that make Schenectady special. Johnny’s may make good food, but it doesn’t replace the Italian bread from Perreca’s.

I don’t go out to eat much, but when I do I have several restaurants I enjoy: Cella’s Bistro, Jasmine Thai, Perreca’s, La Mexicana, and Soulicious @ the Bellevue Farmer’s Market. But I have one restaurant that I will frequent anytime. It’s Tara Kitchen. By far the best restaurant in Schenectady, I have a standing policy to accept any invitation for dinner there. I remember going when they first opened and were serving french bread with their tagines. They’ve improved so much since they started, and I can’t wait to see more exciting, unique restaurants enrich Schenectady in the future.

Prego, Prego, Prego...Too much Italian
Prego, Prego, Prego…Too much Italian

Are you smart enough to be a toll collector?

Testing is everywhere these days…at least it’s constantly discussed with respect to schools, common core, teacher evaluations, etc. With all the controversy today, it’s hard to believe that exams were advocated for in the late 19th century as a way to clean up public service. Recently, I stumbled across the NY State Civil Service exams, and was amazed at the occupations that need to take them. I was aware of police civil service exams. Even exams for workers’ compensation examiner make sense. But I was interested to see similar exams for Janitor (both entry and advanced) and toll collector. Jobs that require skills every high school student should have. Luckily, the state posts some guides for the exams on the website.

Here are 10 questions for the state toll collector examination. You can find them on the state’s website. The answers are at the bottom. No Cheating!

image002 image004 image006 image008 image010 image012 image014 image016


How did you do?

Well, below are the answers. But before I get to them, I have put together a evaluation score:

10 correct: Congratulations!

9 correct: Okay, maybe you misread a question and/or lack customer service skills (don’t worry…I’m not sure that is actually factored into who becomes a toll collector)

<9 correct: High school diploma revoked. Go back to school.

And now, the answers:

1-A; 2-D; 3-A; 4-C; 5-C; 6-C; 7-A; 8-D; 9-B; 10-D

It’s time to eliminate school districts…and reduce segregation in the process

It’s back to school time again, and with it come the supplies sales, the end of vacation, and a return to the normal routine. Schools these days are very political, and the poor teachers always seem to be the scapegoat du jour. The typical sentiments are that America’s schools are failing and bad teachers are to blame. The national academies issues a report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, that addressed America’s need to reform its education system. Meanwhile, charter schools are being embraced by the right as a weapon against, what I can only assume is their greatest existential threat, the teachers unions.

But I think these arguments miss the point. We do not need charter schools to improve the education in our schools. Most studies show they do no better than regular public schools.

The charter school discussion is important because schools have a large impact on every aspect of peoples lives even if they don’t have children.

Over the past several years, I have had discussions with many people explaining why they live where they do. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: they moved for the schools. Or, more accurately, they moved because of the perceived better quality of one school district over another. These decisions are important because the very existence of school districts, zones where inhabitants all attend the same schools, has a profound effect on where people choose to live, the price they pay for homes, and the homogeneity of the larger society.

School districts in the Capital Region are separating society instead of integrating it.

The reason for this negative effect is largely due to a positive reinforcement loop. When I ask people how they know their school district is good, more often than not, I get a lot of back tracking. We “know” intuitively that some school districts are better than others and, for lack of a better indicator, we rely on test scores to show this. We rely on test scores even though research has consistently shown that factors outside the school are the primary driver in student performance.

And so the cycle begins. Parents with the means to choose where to live select a home in a “good” school district and maybe pay more than they’d like to support their children. These parents, because they chose where to live based on the schools, are going to be more involved in their children’s education and will produce well performing students. These children go on to sustain or improve the test scores of their district, thus encouraging more involved parents to move into that district.

This sort of reinforcing loop hurts everyone involved. Parents who want to ensure their children receive every possible benefit probably pay more for their home than they should, while children from poor families are segregated into “poor” performing school districts without the opportunity to interact with a large diversity of socioeconomic statuses. We see this effect on a national level with a widening gap between rich and poor students (but a declining gap between white and black students), and we also see this effect on a local level.

I created two figures using the property value listings on Zillow for an area of North Schenectady and Niskayuna. In the first picture, I am only showing homes for sale or recently sold that are smaller than 2500 sqft. In the second picture, I add a filter to remove those homes that are less than $200k. The difference is stark, and for those of you not familiar with the Capital District, the dividing line in home prices is the border between the Schenectady School District and Niskayuna.

Homes for sale or recently sold 2500sqft or less
Homes for sale or recently sold 2500sqft or less
Homes for sale or recently sold for >$200k and <2500sqft
Homes for sale or recently sold for >$200k and <2500sqft

The interesting thing about these price differences is that these homes were all built around the same time, sit in the same neighborhood with equivalent access to amenities, and are of similar size, yet the homes in Niskayuna are significantly more expensive. This difference is the tax imposed on families who want to send their kids to a good school. The loss of involved parents makes Schenectady schools worse, and the divide further grows between the haves and have-nots.

Which brings me back to charter schools. If we had a system in which the state provided money to send your child to whichever school you wanted regardless of where you lived, then the arbitrary division between Niskayuna and Schenectady would disappear. Parents who want what’s best for their children can live more cheaply, and any student will have access to a diverse and well performing student body regardless of their ability to move. But all of these changes require that the funding come from a larger domain than a single school district, the funding must be given to students on a need basis to account for transportation and other needs, and schools must be restricted by socioeconomic status to ensure no school is a ghetto.

It’s what’s right for Schenectady, it’s right for NY state, and it’s important for social harmony. Our democracy depends on our ability to live together. Let’s start by eliminating school districts.